-Reviewed by Sally Shaw-
Calls to Distant Places (Kingston University Press) is the debut short story collection of author and journalist, Peter Jordan. The forty stories written over an eleven-year period shape a world atlas. Jordan’s stories pinpoint the places: America, Australia, Africa, County Donegal, India, the Middle East, New Mexico and the United Kingdom.
Jordan’s writing enables the reader to visualize each story as a differently coloured pin pressed into a map of the world, with a cotton thread connecting the pins in the order of the collection. The thread zigzags across the map as Jordan returns to India, to the War zones of the Middle East and then onto America. There is no linear path to this themed collection but planning has been undertaken to place the right stories together.
Alcoholism, drug addiction, bullying, criminal activities, war zones and mental illness may not be considered must-read subjects for the casual reader – take ‘A Picture Of You’, a gentle story of the death of a father and a son’s inability to remember his face before the cancer until an event prompts a memory, or ‘Three Days Of Rain’, a story about a brother’s love for his alcoholic brother – but the rewards are in there. Jordan’s route to the collection is being human.
He writes with care and understanding about how diverse humans are and about the cause and effect of their actions. The stories depict the emotions and outcomes, good and bad, of what we humans can have on each other and the world.
In the first story, ‘In Magazines’, which is set in Afghanistan, a teenage boy has been shot and a photographer has to get the photograph. The story reveals the normalisation of war and what value is placed on human life.
“I needed something I could sell. Something human. Before lunch, a white Hilux pulled up at the British checkpoint. In the open back of the vehicle was a young man who’d been shot in the stomach.”
The photographer takes the photographs of the injured boy and he feels uneasy at the reaction of the boy.
“The interpreter looked to me and spoke softly. He’d like to know where the photographs will be shown.”
Jordan’s clear writing places the reader right in the story, so they care about the teenage boy and what has influenced him and society. All this is achieved in two hundred and seventy words. These words maybe few but are thought-provoking long after the last word has been read.
Throughout this collection Jordan brings together humans and animals in several of the stories and his skill of placing them within the context of cultural beliefs while providing a real sense of place is compelling.
For example in ‘Untouchable‘:
“Both parents had heard the noise of the approaching vehicle; they stood together at the entrance to their home: a small two-roomed hut of mud and cow dung with a sloped corrugated iron roof.
The parents invited Dr Dhoni into their home. It was not possible for Mangus, a Dalit, to enter the dwelling. He sat outside near the entrance on the hessian sack; his back resting against the mud wall of the hut, sipping from a fresh bottle of arak.”
In ‘Untouchable’, the story expresses the relationships between Mangus, a Dalit (untouchable), and grieving parents. It tells of how the untouchable helps the parents, who themselves become outsiders through grief, and the impact on them and Mangus.
Mangus has beeen brought to the village to find a Cobra following the death of a child:
“He reached down picked up a pair of children’s sandals. They were small but intricately designed, with bamboo leaf for the toe, and little amber beads sewn into the bamboo leaf for decoration. When he was a child, Mangus had worn a similar pair of sandals made by his mother.
Both of the men then heard a low growl – it wasn’t a hiss – it sounded more like a dog. Dr Dhoni instantly backed away, falling over a nest of bamboo leaves. To their left, a King Cobra had risen up to a full five feet off the ground.”
In ‘Six In Total’ a young man needs to be believed by the Inn Keeper and remote community and an overweight, aging police sergeant has something to prove as well as a mystery to solve. The story has the tone of a Grimm fairy tale set deep in a forest and featuring a hunt for wolves.
“A young man by the name of Zahafian had reported the killing of his older brother by wolves. Normally, Sergeant Hamad would assign the case to one of his juniors, but he decided to investigate this one himself. It would prove to the men he was still more than capable of doing the hard miles.”
“Looking at that black wolf was like looking at the devil himself.”
‘Love Is’ tells the story of a man who suffers from a mental illness and forms a relationship with the sister of the previous tenant of the flat he has moved into. Something is playing on his mind though. This may be about a person with a mental disorder but by the end of the story all readers will be able to relate to the concerns identified in this story. Jordan’s ability to write about mental health enables the reader to empathise with the character. He writes in the voice of the protagonist which has the effect of bringing the reader closer to the condition and the character’s challenges.
“Sometimes, when I get an overload of information, I get a taste of copper in my mouth and I see snow falling.”
This is a powerful image to understanding the effect of mental illness on the protagonist and demonstrates Jordan’s simplistic form of writing that goes deeper than the words.
Jordan creates circumstances, settings and places in the world that have a cause and effect on the characters and in turn their impact on people and the world they come into contact with. ‘Basic Training’, which is difficult to read as its theme is bullying, looks at loyalty – and how circumstance can break it – and the protagonist’s self-control, as well as the tragic consequences of the bullying.
Not all cause and effect is dark. After a tidal surge something has been washed up and young Declan Moone, runs to Quinn’s Public House and soon a crowd gathers around the ‘thing’ to decide what to do with it. ‘Latin, Olde English, Celtic And Horseshit’ is a bright, light story, alive with characters such as Seamus McSheffrey who works for the council and can get a digger to help put up a fence and members of the local Alcoholics Anonymous who arrive at the pub wanting a drink. This fun story delivers an important message with humour.
There‘s no need to read this collection in order as it is not reliant on a sequence – which is its strength. This provides freedom to start with the contents page and land yourself wherever. On first referring to the contents page a reader will be met by wonderful titles: ‘F is for fish’, ‘Plastic Jesus’, ‘White Goods’ and ‘The Butcher Bird’ … Some of these stories the reader may wish to read once, while others invite the reader to return for repeat visits. For me, the stories that I would return to are the ones that either I identified with on a personal level or the stories that had multiple meanings: ‘White Goods’ and ‘Luna’, and also the stories that need reading again to fully understand. There were only three stories in the whole collection that didn’t resonate with me. Jordan’s stories have a timeless feel while appearing relevant to the now, whenever the now may be.